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Banjo thimbles were called “thimbles” in the 19th century. They are mentioned in the introduction to the Briggs’ Banjo Instructor, 1855... “and he played so strong that he had to get a piece of metal for the end of his finger, as a sort of shield, to prevent his tearing off his nail.”
Research shows that they began to be called “picks” after the turn of the century. Thimble playing, as well as 5-string banjos, fell out of favor. Hawaiian guitars became “all the rage.” What is now called a “ banjo finger pick” was originally developed for the Hawaiian Guitar. During the “folk scare” and the reemergence of the down-stroke banjo styles, thimbles were no longer available. So the banjoists began making do with Hawaiian Guitar Picks. “Thimble” is the proper name for the style I make. If they must be called by the verb, that should be “strike.” One strikes the strings when using one, they do not “pick.”
Mostly. I have a die that stamps out the perfect cut. I then sand off all of the flashing left by the die punch and add my initial stamp. I then shape them by hand. The domed tip is shaped on a special finger shaped anvil so that there is a proper curve around the fingernail. This dome can vary from thimble to thimble, but they are all inspected by me as I make them. Once complete polish them to a mirror finish on a polishing wheel.
No, it is “one size fits most” just like it was 130 years ago. The band that wraps around the finger can be bent to accommodate most adult sizes. If you have very small hands these may not fit you. If you have been wearing a standard sized “bluegrass pick” then you will have no problems with these. I will sometimes keep some “cut down” thimbles on hand as I get time. These are the standard sizes that I cut smaller with a jeweler’s saw. They will fit smaller hands.
Yes. They are perfect for gut, nylon, or wire. Wire strings may cause them wear, just like they wear out frets. I don’t know how long that they will last when used with wire as I play nylon/gut strings almost exclusively.
No, don’t hammer your thimble. If desired I can make you a thimble without spooning the end. Just request it be made that way. As it is not standard, there may be some delay in getting it to you.
I would love to make thimbles from GS but I could not find a supplier that would sell me small quantities. I even got hung up on couple of times after I told them what I was making. Let’s face it, there are not a huge number of down-stroke playing banjoists. I am not going to be buying coils of metal any time soon.
My supplier assured me that it was lead free. That said, as far as I know all machinable bass has some lead in it. Don’t suck on your thimble or put it in your mouth. These are not intended for small children and pose a choking hazard.
No, I cannot be held responsible for damage caused by sound waves from your banjo. I have also gotten reports of glass rattling in windows.
I have that book too. The drawing is modern and incorrect. The artist took the woodcut of a thimble and drew the finger around it. The Stewart engraving is not a very good approximation. A much better cut is found in the Montgomery Ward & Co. catalog of 1895.
I have a small collection of original banjo thimbles. Every time I get a new (old) style I try to replicate it. While it is a fun hobby and interesting eI have made some of the Frank Converse style thimbles from the template in his “green book.” I did not find them satisfactory. I still have some that I made, so if you want one contact me.
If you read the string page you will learn that most of the packaged sets of strings are much heavier than anything used in the late 19th century. Most of the bridges I make are from the era of being pitched to "concert pitch" or the standard "tuning" gCGBD. I recommend the string sets I sell for my bridges or buying the packaged sets sold as "LaBella no. 17" (which are really 19).
Minstrelsy as a popular entertainment spanned many decades and there was an active minstrel show in England as late as the 1970s. The term "minstrel banjo" could be applied to any form of the banjo (which included tenor, plectrum, regular, and ukulele banjos) that was used in the context of minstrelsy.
I prefer the term "Early Rimmed Banjo."
I am afraid that I do not have any good data for a set of strings for this era of banjo. Period books recommend a combination of double length violin strings. In the (very little) research that I have done, I have learned that strings for Spanish guitar have gotten thicker over the years, especially after Segovia made nail playing popular. This would be a good research project for someone to work on.
Maybe. It can be a little complicated.
The majority of 5 string banjos built today are based on wire or steel strings and a tall bridge. This configuration was established for the plectrum banjo.
The major difference is in how the neck angle is set. During the "classic era" banjo necks were set flat, with no back angle, and in line with the head. This, with a half inch bridge, provided a fairly high action with plenty of clearance for the strings to vibrate without buzzing.
In my experience, banjos built for steel strings will require a very tall bridge to overcome this back angle. 3/4" to 1" is often needed. I do not make bridges that tall.
Tailpieces tend to be a concern with nylon/nylgut strings. They can be smoothed out with 2000 grit sandpaper and polished with no sharp edges.
The best tuning pegs for nylon or gut are friction violin style pegs. Various "patent" friction pegs are great too but sometimes require fussing with the tension screw. A. D. Grover made some "pancake" geared tuners with a 2:1 ratio which work fine. The modern planet tuners are okay but should never be added to a classic era banjo to replace friction pegs.
There are still many other differences that might cause problems. That said, many people have been able to make modern banjos work. I fear that I will not have any guidance on that.
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